Mounta Laguna meadow and pond

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The Ultimate Guide to Mount Laguna Outdoor Adventure

Guide to outdoor adventure near town of Mount Laguna in the Laguna Mountains, including tips on the best trails, destinations and campgrounds.

The tiny town of Mount Laguna in the Laguna Mountains is the gateway to an alpine wonderland that offers lush meadows, tall forests and some of the best hiking, camping and mountain biking Southern California has to offer. Less than an hour drive from the beaches of San Diego, Mount Laguna is situated at 6000 feet above sea level and feels like a different part of the country. It even snows in winter, when San Diegan's flock to the mountains to demonstrate that their enthusiasm for sledding and snow angels far outstrips their ablility to drive in the white stuff.

This quick-start guide offers an overview of the area, including ideas for lodging, campgrounds, places to eat, and mountain biking and hiking trails. See the links at the bottom of the guide for more resources on Mount Laguna and nearby adventures.

Table of Contents:

1) Getting Oriented
2) Restaurants and Supplies
3) Lodging
4) Camping
5) Hiking and Mountain Biking
6) Things to Do
7) Events

Getting Oriented

The Laguna Mountains are part of the Peninsular Ranges System of eastern San Diego County, and stretch about 35 miles northwest from the Mexican border. Most of the area is within Cleveland National Forest and managed by the U.S. Forest Service. A portion of the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from the Mexican border to Canada, passes through the area.

If you don't have concrete plans already or just want to learn more about the natural history and outdoor possibilites of the Laguna Mountains, the Laguna Mountain Visitor Center, staffed by volunteers, is a great place to get started. It features displays on wildlife, the indigenous Kumeyaay people, rocks and mining and information on fire ecology. To make sure they are open or get info over the phone, you can call 619-473-8547.

The visitor's center is located at mile marker 23.5 of Sunrise Highway, where it intersects with Los Huecos Road (GPS: 32.867769, -116.418904) in the heart of Mount Laguna, just northeast of Laguna Mountain Lodge and Store. It's open Friday afternoons and all day Saturday and Sunday throughout the entire year.

Restaurants and Supplies

Mount Laguna Pine House Tavern
Pine House Cafe and Tavern

Mount Laguna is a cozy little mountain village that offers ready access to the surrounding wilderness areas. You can stay in town and hike or mountain bike right out onto the local trail networks. There are just few options for food.

A personal favorite for dining is the Pine House Cafe and Tavern, a historic lodge that serves "rustic, elegant" comfort food and frequently has live music in the evenings on weekends. It's wise to book a reservation ahead of time on weekends by calling 619-473-8857. The restaurant, open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, is located at 9849 Sunrise Hwy, Mount Laguna, CA, 91948.

The other sit-down eatery in Mount Laguna is the Blue Jay Lodge, a homey restaurant and bar that offers breakfast, lunch and dinner and a fireplace and pool table. The restaurant is located a few hundred yards south of the visitor's center, at 10600 Sunrise Hwy, Mt Laguna, CA 91948. The restaurant is open weekends and most holidays and snow days. To confirm they will be open, call 619-473-8844.

If you need to buy food or get other supplies, Laguna Mountain Lodge offers a small grocery and camping supplies store that's open seven days a week from 9 am to 5 pm.

Lodging

Laguna Mountain Lodge cabin Laguna Mountain Lodge cabin

As for lodging in Mount Laguna, the lodges mentioned above offer a mix of hotel rooms and cabins, of the rustic variety.

Laguna Mountain Lodge rents out small hotel rooms (2 adults max) and one-,two- and three- bedreoom cabins. Call 619-473-8533 or 619-473-8630 between 9 am and 5 pm to make a reservation.

Blue Jay Lodge offers one-bedroom cabins with queen-sized beds and logged interiors. Call 619-473-8844 for reservations.

In Mount Laguna and other parts of the Laguna Mountains there are also private homes and cabins available for rent through AirBnB and VRBO.

Camping

Laguna Campground Laguna Campground fun

If you're looking to camp in the Laguna Mountains, there are several campgrounds to choose from, including two for large groups of up to 100 people. The challenge is to reserve campsites in advance, as they tend to book up pretty far ahead of time. There are also first-come-first-served sites available if you time your arrive so you find a vacancy. Peak season for the campgrounds is April through October, when reserveations are accepted.

The forest service campgrounds are also open during the winter, when they are first-come, first-served only and certain amenities may not be available, such as firewood purchase and showers. Note that during the summer, campfires may be prohibited due to hightened danger of wildfires.

Burnt Rancheria Campground

Managed by the National Forest Service, Burnt Rancheria Campground is the closes to Mount Laguna, just south of town on Sunrise Highway. This is a large campground with several loops and 109 campsites. The campground provides easy access to a segment of the Pacific Crest Trail. Each site has a table and a campfire ring, and thecampground is equipped with restrooms and coin-operated showers (showers open only during reservation season). There are no hookups or dump station for RVs. Firewood is available for purchase from the campground host.

Sites can be reserved by calling 1-877-444-6777 or reserved online at Recreation.gov The campground also has first-come, first-served sites.

GPS: 32.8613889, -116.4161111

Laguna Campground

Laguna Campground is a large campground managed by the forest service, with five different loops and a total of 104 campsites. Laguna Campground is about 3 miles northwest of Mount Laguna, on either Sunrise Highway or Los Huecos Road.The campground offers easy access to the Laguna Meadow Trail Network, one of the highlights of the Laguna Mountains. Amenities include campfire rings, flush toilets and coin-operated showers. Firewood is available for purchase from the campground host.

Sites can be reserved by calling 1-877-444-6777 or reserved online at Recreation.gov The campground also has first-come, first-served sites.

GPS: 32.890229, -116.448986

El Prado Group Campground

Adjacent to Laguna Campground, El Prado Group Campground is made up of five well-spaced individual group sites in a peaceful setting adjacent to Laguna Campground. One of the group sites, Yerba Santa, is accessible and includes four tent sites. Each site can accommodate a varying number of guests ranging between 30 to 50 people, and allows a 40-ft. maximum RV length. The facility provides drinking water, flush and vault toilets and a large parking area. Reservations can be made by calling 619-445-6235 or online at Recreation.gov.

GPS: 32.889765, -116.454643

Horse Heaven Group Campground

Horse Heaven Group Campground is also near Laguna Campground and Laguna Meadow. Contrary to its name, the campground has no equestrian sites. This tent-only facility can accommodate gatherings of up to 100 people. The campground offers three areas for group gatherings: Lupine Loop can accommodate 40 people and 10 vehicles; Buttercup Loop can hold 100 people and 16 vehicles; Hollyhock Loop can hold 70 people and 12 vehicles. The facility is equipped with vault toilets and drinking water. Reservations can be made by calling 619-445-6235 or online at Recreation.gov.

GPS: 32.8875, -116.4408333

Wooded Hill Group Campground

Another campground for large groups, Wooded Hill Group Campground has a single site that can accomadate up to 110 people. This is one large campsite with parking spurs for trailers or RVs (maximum spur length varies from 20-40 ft.). There are no RV hookups. The facility is equipped with picnic tables, vault toilets and a large fire circle. Wooded Hill Nature Trail, a 1.5 mile interpretive trail, starts just across Old County Road from the campground. The campground open from May to Sept (check the reservations site for exact dates).

Reservations are required and can be made by calling 1-877-444-6777 or online at Recreation.gov.

GPS: 32.8875, -116.4408333

Alter Experiences

Alter Experiences offers unique "glamping" stays in the Laguna Mountains, including tree tents and luxiorious "bell" tents.

Alter Experiences camping

They operate out of Laguna Campground, El Prado Campground and Burnt Rancheria Campground, under a license from the National Parks Service. Check out the website to see some photos of their set ups. Inspiration will follow.

Hiking and Mountain Biking

Where to start? Mount Laguna is surrounded by numerous trails used by hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians, with plenty of mellow routes and a few that will test your fitness and technical skills. A segment of the Pacific Crest Trail runs along the east side of Sunrise Highway, right next to town (note that you cannot bike the PCT). On the other side of the highway, the Laguna Meadow and Big Laguna Lake anchor and extensive trail network that passed between wide open grassy meadows and pine forests. The area is also home to Noble Canyon Trail, a challenging SoCal mountain biking classic, that brings riders from alpine forests to desert.

There are many possible combinations of trails to take when hiking and riding near Mount Laguna. Here we will provide information on a few defined routes, but nothing is gospel. If you're feeling adventurous, getting a map of the areas and just freestyling it can be a lot of fun. Just make sure you don't get lost and caught unprepared for cold or hot weather.

Laguna Meadow Loop Trail

If you can only get in one hike or mountain bike ride near Mount Laguna, we recommend the trails that loop around Laguna Meadow and the Laguna lakes (aptly named Big and Little). There are a several trailheads that lead to the meadow, from Sunrise Highway or from Laguna, Horse Haven and El Prado campgrounds. The simplest to find is Sunset Trailhead GPS: 32.860937, -116.462111 on Sunrise Highway, located a little more than 4 miles west of Mount Laguna, as you travel from I8 towards town.

Laguna Meadow Trail map

Park along the road and look for the kiosk and the cattle stopper where trail passed through a fence. The kiosk offers a map and information on the area and the trails. This feeder trail will split a couple of times in the first half mile. Take the right fork at the first right. The second fork is the split that goes clockwise or counter clockwise around the loop. You can go either directionto hug the edge of the huge meadow as the trail loops around it's outer edge near the surrounding pine forest. There are a number of splits in the trail, but as long as you stay insight of the meadow, its fairly straighforward to return to the trailhead spur. The map above outlines one 8-mile loop, but there are multiple ways to explore the meadow. If you want to cut the loop short, you can always cut back through the short segment in the middle, near Big Laguna Lake. Choose your own adventure.

Big Laguna Trail

Big Laguna Trail is a 10 mile route that connects sections of the Leguna Meadow trails, Nobel Canyon Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. The area encompassed by the loop is just northwest of Mounta Laguna and traverses oak and pine woodlands and meadows, offering spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and desert. The PCT section of theh loop is open to hikers but no bikes are allowed. You'll climb about 1000 feet in elevation through ascents over the course of the trail.

Big Laguna Trail map

There are two convenient trailheads for the hike, where the loop intersects with Sunrise Highway. The one labeled Trailhead 1 in the map above is 1.8 miles northwest of Mount Laguna as you head towards Julian. The other, Trailhead 2 in the map, is 6 miles northwest of Mount Laguna, at the Penny Pines Trailhead of the PCT and the top of Noble Canyon Trail. You can park along the road at either trailhead.

Trailhead 1 GPS: 32.905859, -116.457442

Trailhead 2 GPS: 32.885705, -116.432529

Noble Canyon Trail

Noble Canyon Trail is one of the crown jewels of mountain biking trails in Southern California. You can off course hike it, but it's really special for mountain bikers. The combination of technically challenging terrain, isolation and spectacular views makes for a terrific ride. The trail drops about 650 feet over 10 miles from pine forests and alpine meadows along Sunrise Highway, follows a creek through an oak forest canyon, and ends up in a the desert in Pine Valley (assuming you start at the high side). You can either pedal it as an out-and-back (in which case we recommend starting in Pine Valley and pedalling up first) or set up a car shuttle and travel downhill one way (starting at Sunrise Highway).

Big Laguna Trail map

Of the trails mentioned here, this one gets you furthest afield. Bring lots of water and ideally go with another rider. Trailhead 1 (northern trailhead) on the map is 6 miles northwest of Mount Laguna at the Penny Pines Trailhead of the PCT. You can park on either side of Sunset Highway. The lower (southern) trailhead is located just north of the town of Pine Valley, off Pine Creek Road up a short forest service road to the parking.

Trailhead 1 GPS: 32.905859, -116.457442

Trailhead 2 GPS: 32.849530, -116.523014

Things to Do

Beyond camping, hiking and mountain biking, there are other places and things to see in the Laguna Mountains.

Overlooks

Kwaaymaii Point offers a fanstastic views of Anza Borrego desert to the east of the Laguna Mountains. The overlook, which is a trailhead for the Pacific Crest Trail, is 7 miles north of Mount Laguna on the right side of Sunrise Highway, just a minute's walk off road. This is also a great places for stargazing, which can be terrific on clear nights. GPS: 32.935973, -116.486920.

Closer to Mount Laguna, Desert View Picnic Site is another overlook for Anza Borrego along the PCT, with the nice addition of restrooms and picnic tables. This is a great place to relax, have a BBQ, hike a bit along the PCT and enjoy the scenery. It's located just off Sunrise Highway a few hundred yards northeast of the Mount Laguna Visitor's Center on Desert View road. GPS: 32.869862, -116.414776.

California Wolf Center

The California Wolf Center, a conservation and rehab facility for wolves, is located about 16 miles north of Mount Laguna as you head towards the town of Julian. The center offers tours where you can learn about their work to recover populations of wild wolves and encounter some of the resident wolves at the facility.

Snow Days

The higher elevation areas of the Laguna Mountains are a popular place for San Diegans to get their winter snow fix. Winter storms regularly drop a few inches of shortlived powder. On snowy weekends, people flock to Mount Laguna and Palomar Mountain, so expect to deal with some traffic. Getting up there early is one strategy go avoid the crowds. If you don't have four-wheel-drive, it's a good idea to bring chains, as they are required when the roads have ice or snow on them.

A company called Security Chain Company makes a quality universal set of snow chains that is design to fit any car. You can pick up a set for $45 from 4 Wheel Parts.

Events

Mount Laguna Trailfest is an annual mountain biking festival organized by the San Diego Mountain Biking Association that takes place in the fall each year.

Additional Resources

For more in depth information, here are a few other great resources for exploring Mount Laguna:

Cleveland National Forest Website

Official California State Parks website for the area.

Recreation.gov

Website for reserving campgrounds near Mount Laguna.

Details

Location

Coordinates: 32.840168, -116.439407
See on Google map

Getting There

Mount Laguna is located about an hour east of downtown San Diego. From the intersection of I5 and I8, take I8 about 48 miles east to Sunrise Highway. Take Exit 47 and head northeast on Sunrise Highway for 14 miles to downtown Mount Laguna. If you are coming from the town of Julian, head southeast on Route 79 for 20 miles to Mount Leguna.

More Info + Contact

Management: Cleveland National Forest

Info Phone: 619-445-6235